Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 3 NO. 9 / APRIL 1989

Online With START


What Every Sysop Should Know

by Andrew Reese
START Editor

There are thousands of bulletin boards across the country. Some are one-person outfits and others are huge corporate services with large staffs. Running a BBS used to be as simple as hooking your modem up to the phone line and running appropriate software. A little word-of-mouth advertising on other systems and you were off and running, at least until you, your folks or your teenage kids (depending on your age) got tired of having the phone line tied up every night.

Now, there are dozens of commercial online services, available to meet every professional and personal need or interest. The anarchy of the early days is giving way to structure as the market--and the law--slowly adapt to this new technology.

And Now, the Lawyers

Now there's even a name for this area of law: SYSLAW. Two New York City lawyers, Jonathon D. Wallace and Rees W. Morrison, have written the first book for the layman on this subject, aptly tided, SYSLAW and subtitled, "The Sysop's Legal Manual". This issue, I'm sitting in for our regular columnist, Gregg Pearlman, because I was a lawyer myself for 12 years.

SYSLAW, The Sysop's Le-
gal Manual, by Jonathon
D. Wallace and Rees W.

Wallace and Morrison have written an excellent guide for the person who is running a BBS (a Sysop) or is thinking of starting one. While written in legalese to some unavoidable extent, it is generally quite understandable. They approach this complex subject by first defining a Sysop's rights, then detailing possible liabilities in terms of specific situations.

For example, what if you are running a clean BBS and someone uploads a pirated program? Can you be held liable by the copyright owner? Can your equipment be seized? Can you be imprisoned? Wallace and Morrison analyze this situation and make specific recommendations that may help you avoid these dire consequences. Specifically, they recommend that a Sysop check uploaded messages and files no less often than daily, post a log-on notice warning against piracy and take immediate and public action to oust any offenders.

Wallace and Morrison are to be commended for including the actual text of recommended warnings and notices in their book. If you ever need to prove that you lacked criminal intent in your BBS operations, the fact that you religiously followed the recommendations of legal experts (like Wallace and Morrison) will help a great deal with the authorities.

Other Issues

Wallace and Morrison include an excellent discussion of a very complex subject, copyright law. Bulletin boards, by their nature, include a wide variety of materials which could be the subject of a copyright claim by the sysop, the BBS owner or by third parties. The authors wend their way well through this maze, again with specific recommendations.

One issue of particular interest to magazine editors is the fairly common practice of some Sysops to excerpt or reprint magazine articles on their boards. We at START Magazine do not mind if Sysops excerpt portions of articles from issues of START, provided that each excerpt is preceded by a proper copyright notice, such as "Copyright 1989 by Antic Publishing, Inc. Excerpted by permission." We (and most other publishers) do mind if you reprint complete articles--we pay our authors quite well for their words and have a right to be the only distributor of them.


I can fault the authors in only two areas. First, I fear that they show their prejudices when they write

    Don't answer questions or volunteer any information until you have seen a lawyer. The police are not required to read you your rights unless they are about to arrest you, but any statements you make can still be used against you if you are arrested later. It is often said that the innocent are the ones most likely to get in trouble by volunteering statements to the police.

Baloney! Not only are the authors in error about when (and if) your rights must be given, but their advice to the innocent not to cooperate with the police is misguided at best. I was a prosecutor for six years and in a private criminal law practice for another six and never saw a truly innocent person prosecuted because of statements volunteered to the police.

A Sysop's lawyer

The other aspect in which I must differ somewhat with the authors is in their advice to Sysops looking for a lawyer. You probably should begin by talking to your own attorney if you have one, but because of the new and unusual nature of BBS law, you should look for a lawyer who handles either "high tech" law or copyright law. Ask your own attorney for a referral.

Alternatively, go to your local public law library (call your local courthouse if you don't know where it is) and ask for the Martindale-Hubbell Directory for your state. This is a listing of lawyers by community and specialty; if a lawyer lists copyright or intellectual property as a specialty, you can be more confident that he or she can handle your case.

However you locate a lawyer to assist you with any BBS-related problem, be sure that you take a copy of SYSLAW with you--and expect to loan it to your lawyer. You will be paying your lawyer by the hour and this book will definitely save you money by getting your lawyer up to speed more quickly. It's that good a book!

As a side note, if you are a computer professional, you may want to subscribe to Jonathon Wallace's Computer Law Letter, a newsletter focusing on legal issues in the computer industry. It's published six times per year.


SYSLAW, The Sysop's Legal Manual, by Jonathon D. Wallace, Esq. and Rees W. Morrison, Esq., $19.95 (plus $2 postage);

Jonathon Wallace's Computer Law Letter, $30 per year. LLM Press, 150 Broadway (Suite 610), New York, NY 10038, {212) 766-3785.